When Studio Theatre decided to stage Irish master Brian Friel’s Translations this season, the timing seemed like a perfect fit for Studio’s Belfast-born associate artistic director Matt Torney to direct. “I am from Northern Ireland and Brian Friel is our greatest writer,” Torney says. “He passed away recently, so he was very much on my mind in terms of wanting to reconnect with his work and celebrate him some way.”
Although the play is set in rural County Donegal in 1833, the themes connect well with current political events.
“The play was written in 1980 but the connections seemed so relevant and strong that it was kind of the perfect play to do in Washington, D.C. right now,” Torney says. “When it was written, it was done so people would talk about the political situation in Northern Ireland in a different way, asking the question what sort of art—particularly theater—could offer as a space to engage about political questions.”
In Northern Ireland, there were two groups of people who were diametrically opposed to one another, who did not speak the same language or share the same culture and could not find a way to communicate with one another. That, Torney notes, describes D.C. perfectly today.
The play begins with a diverse group of people gathering at an Irish-language hedge school to study classics of Greek and Latin literature, and when British army engineers interrupt in an effort to map out the country by drawing new borders and translating local place names into the King’s English, languages and histories collide.
“The play is after something a little deeper. It’s exploring the complex dance between language, space and self, and how all these forces work together to weave a sense of reality, so you have to be aware of your history and what the text is of the current moment in order to understand it fully,” the director says. “In Northern Ireland that meant going back to the 1830s and looking at the moment when the British translated all of the Irish place names into English.”
Torney believes Friel selected that moment in 1833 because it served as a very powerful metaphor for what was happening in Northern Ireland circa 1980, just as it translates into a lot of what this country is experiencing today.
“I believe sometimes it seems we are living in two different Americas, and this is something that people will resonate with,” Torney says.
Produced by Studio Theatre
closes April 22, 2018
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Historically, Translations has been performed in large theaters, so having the production done in Studio’s smaller space has been something people haven’t seen before.
“It’s kind of like a return home to the original intimate context that Friel intended it to be seen, because the first performance was at the Guildhall in Derry,” Torney says. “The idea to get up close and personal with this play is very compelling.”
Torney first saw Translations when he was 15 in Belfast, and he admits that it’s served as a significant part of his understanding of theater, and Irish theater specifically. That made taking on the directorial challenge a little intimidating for him.
“It’s so deeply connected to where I am from so not only was it a directorial challenge, but also a very emotional challenge for me,” he says. “It has been a very powerful and emotional experience for me to work on this. For me, it’s particularly important to remember Friel and to share the lessons and experiences of my past and history in Northern Ireland.”
The one thing he hopes audiences know coming in is that the play is based on real events and was not just an invention by its writer. For nearly 250 years, it was illegal for Catholics to be educated, which is why the play is set in an “illegal” school where scholars would go and learn outside of the government’s eye.
“It feels like it can’t be true, but it was. One of Friel’s ancestors was a hedge school master,” Torney says. “It’s fascinating and historically accurate. It’s incredible context to consider the relationship between past and future.”
The cast includes Caroline Dubberly, Megan Graves, Matthew Aldwin McGee, Joe Mallon, Erin Gann, Martin Giles, Cary Donaldson, Brad Armacost, Molly Carden and Jeff Keogh.
“One of the things that I think characterizes the work at Studio is material that requires exceptional acting. This play is full of just incredible parts and scenes and something for actors to really sink their teeth into,” Torney says. “It’s just a masterpiece of writing and a masterpiece of language, that is rich emotionally and intellectually. These are special words and real words and something really magical.”